Rendille people


Rendille / Reendille / Rendili / Randali / Randille

The Rendille people are a nomadic pastoralist Cushitic-speaking ethnic group inhabiting the arid North Eastern Province of Kenya.

The Rendille also known as Rendile, Reendile, Rendili, Randali, Randile and Randille are popularly  referred to as "The Holders of the Stick of God" occupies an area, precisely in the Kaisut Desert in the west Marsabit District. They are closely related to the Samburu. There are about 64,000 Rendille people living in Kenya.

The Rendille descended through the Cushitic family lines with the Somali people. When the Somali people were traveling from the Suez Canal through Ethiopia the Somali people chose to go toward Somalia for good pastures. The Rendille people refused to go with them and separated to their present homeland around Marsabit. They had rejected the land of the Somali's and were thereafter called Rertit. The Somalis consider them rejected people.

Rendille people map



The ethnonym Rendille translates as Holders of the Stick of God. The name "Rendille" is a colonial misinterpretation of the word "rertit", which means "separated," "refused" or "rejected" in the Somali and Rendille languages.



The Rendille are believed to have originally migrated down into the Great Lakes area from Ethiopia in the more northerly Horn region, following southward population expansions by the Oromo and later the Somali.

Traditionally, they are nomadic pastoralists, tending camels, sheep, goats and cattle. The camels are generally kept in the northern part of their territory and the cattle in the southern section. Additionally, the Rendille traditionally practice infibulation. According to Grassivaro-Gallo and Viviani (1992), the custom was first brought to the Horn region from the Arabian peninsula during antiquity, and was originally intended to protect shepherd girls from attacks by wild animals during menstruation. The tradition subsequently dispersed from there.

The first ethnological study of the Rendille was published at the turn of the 20th century by William A. Chanler. It described the unmixed Rendille that his party encountered as tall, slender and reddish-brown in complexion, with soft, straight hair and narrow facial features. Chanler additionally remarked that many of the Rendille possessed "fierce" blue eyes, a physical peculiarity that was also later noted by Augustus Henry Keane (1900), John Scott Keltie (1904) and John Henry Patterson (1909).

Rendille people

Location and Distribution

According to Ethnologue, there were approximately 94,700 Rendille speakers in 2006. Most are concentrated in the Kaisut Desert and Mount Marsabit in the Marsabit District of Kenya's northern Eastern Province.

The Rendille occupy an area in Northeastern Province of Kenya from the Merille River and Serolivi in the South to Loyangalani in the North from Marsabit and Merti in the East to Lontolio in the West. The primary towns include Marsabet, Laisamis, Merille, Logologo, Loyangalani, Korr, Kamboi, Ngurunit, and Kargi. The climate of their homeland is semi arid.



The Rendille people speak the Rendille language as a mother tongue (also known as Rendile or Randile (as referred to mostly by their neighbours samburu)). They belong to the Cushitic branch of the Afroasiatic family. the rendille languange is more closer to the somali languange than the rest of the cushitic languages.

Additionally, some Rendille use English or Swahili as working languages for communication with other populations.

The Ariaal sub-group of the Rendille, who are of mixed Nilotic and Cushitic descent, speak the Nilo-Saharan Samburu language of the Samburu Nilotes with whom they cohabit.



According to Spencer (1973), the Rendille are organized into an age grade system of patrilineal lineage groups (keiya), which are subsumed under fifteen clans (group). Of those, only nine are considered authentic Rendille. These Northern Rendille or Rendille proper are consequently the only ones that are included in the traditional Rendille moiety (belesi). The remaining six clans that are excluded from the moiety consist of mixed individuals. Five of those clans are of Rendille (Cushitic) and Samburu (Nilotic) descent. Collectively, the latter hybrid groups are referred to as the Ariaal or Southern Rendille. The Somalis draw a distinction between the "original" or "good" ethnic Rendille (known as asil), and the "bad" or assimilated Rendille ("those who speak Samburu").


Rendille are Cushitic peoples and have Ethiopia as their original homeland, though as ancestors of Cush they traveled through Suez Canal to Ethiopia as their first destination. They were compelled to migrate down south to the Great Lakes area in  northern Kenya due to increased rivalry and conflicts with the people of the Oromo tribes and later Somalis mainly over grazing land and water for their livestock.

They are said to be related to the Somalis of Somalia. They don't have history with the British colonialists, because their land was too dry to interest them. The language originally spoken by the Rendille is somewhat similar to the Somali languages, but currently many of them speak Samburu since they have intermarried.

The Rendille settled in the Laisamis Division in Marsabit District, mainly in the Kaisut Desert that is found east of Lake Turkana and west of Marsabit town. This desert is bordered by the Chalbi Desert, Mount Marsabit, and the Ndoto Mountains. In this region, they are neighbors to the Borana , Gabbra, Samburu and Turkana tribes.



The Rendille people are traditionally pastoralists keeping goats, sheep, cattle, donkeys, and camels. The Rendille get milk and meat from the camel.  As a semi-nomadic pastoralists who consider the camel most essential animal; their camel are the best suited for adaptability to the arid conditions of their territory. Another important aspect of the camel is that it's used as a mode of transport when they shift from site to site carrying family goods on their uniquely designed backload.

Their nomadic lifestyle has become less prominent with the development of boreholes and centers that allow a more permanent existence. Their staple food consists of meat, and a mixture of milk and blood, known as "Banjo".

Rendille people


The traditional religion is still very strongly followed.  The traditional religion believes in a Creator God who is worshipped through ritual and regular prayers.  Traditionally the Rendille are a very religious people, believing in one God, an omnipresent creator and provider who answers prayer and cares for the poor.

Their ceremonies are similar to Old Testament Jewish traditions.  There are numerous sacrifices including a daily milk libation.  Strict adherence to their rituals is critical in Rendille culture.

They practice many magical rituals, involving their camels or sheep.  For example, the way a certain bull camel approaches a proposed new settlement area is taken as a good or bad omen.  A propitious camel may be placed outside the camp facing the direction of an expected enemy attack in order to prevent the attack.

Various clans observe specific taboos (avoidance rituals).

Most of the traditional Rendille practice their Rendille Traditional Religion.  There are a few Rendille who have become Muslims, but not many, due to the dietary restrictions of Islam.  (Almost every other Cushitic group is Muslim.)



The Rendille are nomadic pastoralists keeping mainly camels, goats and sheep.  They live in large semi-permanent villages of married men, women and children and move two to three times each year.  Marriage patterns are exogamous, between sub-clans or major clans.  The Rendille follow a 14-year generation initiation pattern.

The villages are based on the clan.  Because it is based on the clan and not extended families like the Samburu and Maasai, the village can be very large, up to one hundred huts.  The houses are made of a stick framework with mats made from wild sisal fastened to them.  Two cow skins form the doorway.  The whole hut is designed to be taken down and strapped onto a camel.

The huts are built in a circle.  The thorn enclosures for the livestock are inside the circle, so that any marauders would have to pass the huts to get to the animals.  Right in the centre is the naabo or gathering place where they meet to pray and to discuss village matters.

The Rendille follow an age-set system, with circumcision taking place every fourteen years for the males.  They then become 'warriors' and fulfill this role of protecting the livestock and the tribe.  Then the warriors will all marry within a two-year period before the end of their warriorhood, paving the way for the next group of warriors.  (The long extension is no longer being strictly followed, resulting in earlier marriages.)

The idiom for marriage is 'to build a house for yourself.'  The wedding takes place at the bride's village. Early in the morning, the bride would be circumcised (clitoridectomy).

In the meantime, the groom, his best man and a group of friends, move towards the mother-in-law's hut, singing a wedding song and driving a ewe and a very fat ram.  At the edge of the village they stop and two women relatives of the bride remove their sandals.  (They will walk for five days without sandals!)

The ewe is taken and placed in the mother-in-law's hut.  The ram is taken to the entrance of the hut where the elders slaughter it.  The fat strips on the back are carefully cut off.  The groom and best man then carry the fat strips to the mother-in-law through the entrance to the hut.  Much of the day is taken up with the elders drinking tea, while the women build the new hut for the bride, using the best of the mother's mats in the process.

A group of women from the groom's clan dressed with the ceremonial 'okko' - a skin with bells attached.  In the evening, the groom, best man and bride move slowly to the new hut which will be in the centre of the village.  An elder makes the first fire for the new hut by rubbing two sticks together.

Different clans have slight variations but with Dubsahay clan, the groom enters the hut through an opening left in the wall of the hut.  He passes through on the girl's side to his side of the hut.  She too enters through an opening on the opposite side from the groom.  A baby is placed briefly in her arms.

The best man cuts the toenails of both groom and bride.  These are then tied into a part of the groom's cloth and he will allow them to drop out at some stage.  The bride's and groom's nails are indistinguishable, symbolising the unity of the new couple.

The groom and best man leave the hut at night.  They will return every day but leave again until about the fifth day when the groom comes to stay and the bride is starting to heal up from the clitoridectomy.

Rendille have been largely monogamous, but we see an increasing number now taking a second wife.  If the first wife has not had a son, this is one reason for having a second wife.

Children are raised by example.  The smaller boys and girls help with chores around the house: caring for the lambs, fetching sticks for firewood and caring for siblings.  As children get a bit older, their roles are determined by gender, with the girls fetching water from the wells, and the boys being more involved with the livestock, although girls will also herd and milk the small stock.

Teaching takes place by older boys and girls, as well as older men and women.  The warriors will train the boys in camel care and how to milk a camel.

The learning style is repetitive, so a subject is taught and then repeated over and over.  When a child is about ten years old, the front teeth are knocked out and the child is given a sheep or goat.  The transition from boyhood to warriorhood is by means of circumcision. A warrior becomes an elder when he marries.  A girl becomes a 'galtaam' with the onset of puberty.  She wears a lot more beads and a headpiece made of little shiny metal pieces and beadwork. A girl becomes a woman by means of "circumcison" (clitoridectomy) at marriage.

A small herd of milk camels is maintained near the settlement, milked by the women for family use.  The main herds of camels are herded by older boys and young men, moving frequently to find good grass and water.

Camels need to be watered only every 10-14 days but at that time drink enormous amounts.  This is brought up from deep water holes by hand by the young men.  Large flocks of sheep and goats are shepherded by the girls and unmarried women.  Their animals are very closely identified with the life of each family.  The days of the week and seasons of the year are named for the various aspects of caring for the camels.

The Sooriyyo ceremony that takes place four times a year is rather similar to the Passover.  Every family chooses an animal without blemish. All the males in the family gather around, the animal is washed with milk and milk is poured on the cow skins forming the doorway of the hut. When they have slaughtered the goat or sheep, the blood is applied to the foreheads of all the males.  If the camels are present, they also daub some blood on the hump.

Rendille people

Rendille Culture and traditions (rites of passage,marriage,ceremonies etc)

The Rendille`s ceremonial rituals can be summarized as Naming, Circumcision, Marriage and Death. They are all accompanied by very significant events and practices as rites of passage.

Rendille culture is built on strict separation of the sexes during important cultural and spiritual practices. Women are not allowed to talk or fraternize with men, and traditionally are shunned from major religious events outside of courtship rituals.

Rites of passage include the young men (moran) living in the bush, learning traditional skills, and undergoing traditional circumcision. Men marry after circumcision and the time of becoming a moran is as young as about eighteen to twenty years. Marriage is not allowed within one's own clan, and is arranged by parents as for most tribes. Each wife live in her own home with her children, and mothers have a high status. Society is strongly bound by family ties.

Circumcision is supposed to be a public event, and an issue of great delight and pride. Boys and young men who are circumcised but have not yet undergone Ennui, (rite into adulthood done at age 30) whereby men become elders and are given ownership of land. In this ritual, wear a purple cloth and a white feather as their headgear.
This cloth is changed to a checked pattern at the final acceptance as an Elder. Being very conscious of their headgear, warriors will even get upset if it is touched by an outsider or member of another tribe, especially a woman. Nevertheless, some of the Rendille have adopted western clothing. Their building styles for houses comprise of higher ones than those built by other pastoralist tribes and have a round shape. After every seven (or fourteen) years, there is a general shifting up in status of the different male age-groups, moving from childhood to boyhood then to warrior hood and finally to elder hood.

Young girls are often "booked" at a very early age by older men. They marry as young as ten or twelve years. The Rendille women`s, shift from maidenhood to matrimony is manifested by the agonizing rite of clitoridectomy, which happens in private on the very morning of her wedding.

Nonetheless the event symbolizes the most important status-shift in the life of a woman. The wedding ceremony takes time as women are made to learn skills of women that will benefit her and the husband in their future marriage. The prospective groom must give the bride-wealth (gunu) to the bride's family: 4 female and 4 male camels (half for the father, the remaining camels for the rest of the family). One of them is eaten at the ceremony.

Beaded girls - the Rendille receive empooro engorio beaded collars for marriage, made of palm fibers, girafe or elephant hairs and warriors get ready for the wedding by applying a make-up of red ochre and sheep fat. The warriors put on long hair woven and braided, then dyed red using ochre and fat, making their bodies shinny and colorful.

The bride wears jewellery made of glass and metal, necklaces of beads and wire, headbands, and a large circular earings. She will join her husband's family after marriage. The elders discuss problems in a ritual circle called Nabo, in which women are allowed to enter. They also meet there to pray, receive guests and perform ceremonies.

Polygamy is part of the tradition. A wealthy man may have five wives. Special ceremonies take place at a child's birth. A ewe goat is sacrificed if it is a girl, a ram if a boy. The girl is blessed 3 times while 4 for the boy. In the same way, mother drinks blood for 3 days for a babygirl, 4 days for a babyboy.

Death rituals include a celebration day when the clothes and belongings of the deceased are given as gifts to those attending.

Rendille people

Traditional dress

Traditional dress includes beautiful beads worn by the women around the neck, wrists, and ankles. Children can often be seen without clothing.

The moran wears colorful shukas (clothe wrapped around their bodies) and colors their hair with a mud/mineral mixture. Men often wear a wrapped cloth rather than trousers. Western clothing is becoming more popular, but more among the men than the women.


Socio-political structure

According to Spencer (1973), the Rendille are organized into an age grade system of patrilineal lineage groups (keiya), which are subsumed under fifteen clans (goup). Of those, only nine are considered authentic Rendille. The real or Northern Rendille or Rendille proper herds camel and are consequently the only ones that are included in the traditional Rendille moiety (belesi). There  nine sub clans of Real or Northern Rendille includes: the Urowen, Dispahai, Rongumo, Lukumai (Nahgan), Tupsha, Garteilan, Matarbah, Otola, and Saale.

The remaining six clans that are excluded from the moiety consist of mixed individuals and are referred to as Southern Rendille. It comprises the Ilturia and Ariaal, who also herd cattle, and are closely related to the Samburu. Due to their intermarriage with the Samburu tribe, there is now what can be termed as a hybrid culture. With the recent droughts, transition is underway and in the near future, there is a chance that their pure nomadic ways of life will slowly die.

Clans live in temporary settlement called gobs. Gobs are usually near wells dug and are given the name of the clan, subclan or the elder of the family. They never stay long at the same place to look for water sources and pasturing areas. They have to move 3 to 5 times a year. Villages are typically made of two dozen houses (manyattas) or homesteads with about 120 individuals. The manyattas are composed of a group of semi-spherical huts made of branches and covered with leather or canvas. Women are in charge of taking the houses apart and putting them back in the new location. Near them, an enclosure of crabbed branches protects camels for the night. Each kind of livestock (camels, sheep, goats, cattle) have a separate camp that is taken cared of by people of a different age-set.
Elders and chiefs are the leaders of the traditional community.

Rendille people

The Rendille Calendar

The Rendille calendar functions according to a procession of seven-or fourteen-year cycles, which is based on both lunar and solar aspects. The calendar, which is passed down in oral tradition, is essential for determining not only the various life-stages through which men must pass before being able to marry as elders, but also regulates with clockwork-like precision the various movements of the Rendille clans through their traditional territory, thus avoiding conflicts over forage and water rights, and preventing overgrazing which would otherwise quickly turn their already marginal lands into a completely sterile desert.

The calendar also has implications for women in the form of the sepaade institution, by which women of a specific cyclical age-set delay their age at marriage, which significantly reduces overall Rendille fertility.

Every seven (or fourteen) years, there is a general shifting up in status of the various male age-sets, from childhood to boyhood to warriorhood and to elderhood.


Political Situation

Every married man is an elder and becomes part of the leadership of his clan.  Each man has equal voice in the decisions made which are based on consensus.  Someone continually going against the common wishes will be coerced to fall in with the majority.  There is no democracy.  In practice, those with leadership skills are recognized and will be called upon to help with critical decision making.

The traditional leadership is still very much in place.  There is now also a 'Chief's committee' with a representative from each of the clans.  The chief is strictly a Kenya government post and Rendille do not traditionally have a chief or overall leader.

Relationship to other Peoples:
1. Rendille - Samburu:  A remarkable alliance exists between the Cushitic Rendille and their Nilotic Samburu neighbors to the south as detailed by Spencer (1973).  The Rendille helped the Samburu survive when rinderpest wiped out their cattle herds at the end of the nineteenth century.  Just after the Samburu recovered, the Rendille were decimated by smallpox.  The Samburu, having already faced that affliction, were more resistant and so could help herd Rendille livestock (Brown 1989, 63-64).
2. Rendille - Gabbra:  The Gabbra are the northern neighbours of the Rendille and they share some rituals such as Alma'do and Sooriyyo, as well as both being camel-keepers.  Conflict has arisen from time to time due to mutual raiding.  They then usually get together to make peace again, being "enemies we can talk to."
3. Rendille - Turkana:  The numerically larger Turkana have frequently in the past mounted vicious raids on the Rendille, stealing large herds of livestock.  The Turkana are "enemies we cannot talk to," so there is no mechanism to bring closure to the raids.

The Rendille are not active or influential in Kenya politics, although one Member of Parliament was made an Assistant Minister.  The only time political activity really takes place is around election time.  Most would then vote for the candidate who comes from their side of the moiety.

Rendille people